June 15, 2010

Copycats

Oh, there are so many things I could be talking about when I say 'copycats'. For the sake of this (limited) discussion, I'm talking about writers who draw on others' work to create their own, creating a revision or homage to the original piece. I'm talking Rent from La Boheme, David James Duncan's The Brothers K from The Brothers Karamazov, even James Joyce's Ulysses. Or, one of the myriad books that cast themselves as a re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet, all the recent books running off of Pride and Prejudice, the books re-spinning the Odyssey or the Iliad, even all those books retelling biblical events (Anita Diamant's The Red Tent, for example). If you want to take it in a different direction, try these: historical fiction centered on specific (and famous) time periods. Adele Geras' Troy. Any of Philippa Gregory's books about Henry VIII, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall... The lists are endless, and the only thing tying every single one of the aforementioned books (and thousands I haven't taken the time to mention) is this: They are all based on something else.

I must confess that at times I am intimidated by these books. Perhaps it's because of my pseudo-literariness. While I did not graduate with an English degree, I did take a few of those sorts of classes, and came away with what at the time seemed like a much wider worldview. After reading some of these foundational works, I suddenly found myself looking at the world in a much different way, and seeing things with greater depth than I did before. I can remember the first time I saw "A Knight's Tale" after reading The Canterbury Tales and being stunned (in an absolutely delighted way) to realize that "Geoffrey Chaucer, the writer" was in fact the "real" Geoffrey Chaucer, the writer. At this realization, I suddenly understood many of the little jokes the scriptwriters had thrown into the movie, to be caught only by the watcher who not only knew who Chaucer was, but had enough familiarity with The Canterbury Tales to realize that when Chaucer tells his gambling adversaries that he will "eviscerate [them] in fiction," he actually does.

It was brilliant. I felt like I'd learned a foreign language without realizing that's what I'd been doing. Without reading The Canterbury Tales I wouldn't have gotten the joke. Much like without reading Paradise Lost (itself a revision of the story of Creation), I wouldn't have gotten the same depth of appreciation from reading Ronald Johnson's Radi Os, a poetic project that revises the first four books of Paradise Lost by excising certain words to create an entirely new version of Creation.

Back to the intimidation factor. Many of these books, the books based on other books, which in turn are probably based on other books, are on my to-read list, but I hesitate at reading them. These books range from literary fiction (The Brothers K) to young adult (Lisa Klein's Ophelia, or Mirjam Pressler's Shylock's Daughter), but they have this in common: I have not yet read the source work. I haven't read The Brothers Karamazov, I haven't read Hamlet or The Merchant of Venice. So I hesitate.

It's almost as though I don't quite feel qualified to read these books without reading their sources first - I feel as though I won't get the same understanding or appreciation. Some author may be making a subtle commentary on the source work, but if I haven't read said work, I'll completely miss the commentary. (The musical Jane Eyre, based on the book Jane Eyre, is a prime example of this - I think the musical is done brilliantly, especially in the musical numbers, where the writers really captured many of the themes and recurring metaphors from the book and wrote them into the songs. But I'm actually discouraging one of my good friends from seeing/listening to the musical before reading the book, because without first reading the book, such cleverness and loyalty to the book will be completely lost on her.)

I suppose this all boils down to a question. And that question is: How much do such reimaginings depend on their source work? And how much should they? And, should I just read these books anyway, knowing I won't get as much out of them as I would if I'd read the source first? Anyone can read a book, any book, and appreciate a well-written story, deep and sympathetic characters - but I feel that if one is reading something based on something else, it is impossible to get "everything" without having experience with both bodies of art. Is this the truth? What do you think?

*I am also aware that this is an enormous topic, one that cannot possibly be spanned by one blog post, even one so disgustingly long as this one. For those reading, this topic will most likely return. Probably in a more focused way.

4 comments:

  1. Food for thought (oh, it must be past my lunchtime-a mealtime metaphor). I love the way stories build on stories: a good example, Zadie Smith's novel On Beauty is an homage to Howard's End by E.M. Forster. I read On Beauty first, then went on to read and appreciate Howard's End. And of course, Shakespeare was a shameless thief, rarely if ever coming up with his own plots!

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  2. I did not know that (although both of those books are on my to-read list). That's going to change a lot about how I read those books when I get around to them. (I should have mentioned that I just love books based on books based on... etc.) Thanks for the tip! Do you have any more? :)

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    http://momtobedby8.blogspot.com/2010/06/apple-ipad-giveaway-yes-i-said-ipad.html

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  4. Hey! Will be stopping by your blog soon - thanks for the visit! :)

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